On a day when fellow musical legend George Jones passed away at 81, it’s ironic that Willie Nelson is about to celebrate his 80th birthday.
Jones, as anyone who even casually follows country music knows, was a unique talent, possessed of one of the most distinctive voices in the business. Yet as a performer, his career was marked as much by criticism for his concert no-shows and cancellations as it was by accolades from the industry and love from his fans.
The “Old Possum’s” battles with alcoholism, which he finally ’fessed up to in a 1996 memoir “I Lived to Tell It All,” cost him a couple marriages—including a romantic and musical partnership with fellow Nashville legend Tammy Wynette—along with chunks of entire decades when he should have been at the top of the charts.
Nelson, on the other hand, despite his infamous run-ins over the use of another “recreational substance,” has followed a far different path.
Along with a whole list of other country stars (Jones, Jimmy Dean, Gene Autry, Roy Orbison, George Strait), he was born into humble circumstances in small-town Texas. In the 1950s, before his musical career took off, he worked as a radio DJ, door-to-door salesman, studio musician and a hardworking but little-known singer. But in the ’60s, he moved to Nashville, hooked up with some legitimate record producers and began cranking out songs, several of which turned into No. 1 mega-hits for some of country music’s biggest stars: “Hello Walls” for Faron Young; “Night Life” for Ray Price; and “Crazy” for Patsy Cline.
Over the next three decades, the list of entertainers that Nelson wrote songs for, performed with and recorded duets with reads like a Who’s Who of the music industry: Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings—his bandmates in the 1980s touring group The Highwaymen—Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, plus plenty of contemporary performers, such as Julio Iglesias, Wynton Marsalis, Nora Jones and Sheryl Crow.
His own string of hits was no less impressive: “On the Road Again,” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain,” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” among many others.
Had he decided to ride off into the sunset when he hit 60 or 70, nobody would have faulted him. After a long and lengthy—most critics would label it “legendary”—career, Nelson would have been entitled to kick back on his ranch, show up for the occasional celebrity special or We Are the World-type fundraiser, and enjoy the fruits of his lifetime labors.
A focus on farmers and farming
But the reason a tribute appears in this space today isn’t because Willie Nelson is someone we only remember from yesteryear, but because when he could have dialed it down, he stayed in the game, embracing an entirely different mission: Launching, funding, supporting and promoting Farm Aid.
Let me say upfront I don’t agree with that group’s mantra that Big Ag, so-called “factory farming,” is a blight on American agriculture. Nor am I always onboard with Farm Aid’s policy prescriptions, mostly aimed at redirecting USDA subsidies and curtailing the (alleged) hegemony that large-scale farmers and producers exert over the business of food production.
The answer to many of the legitimate concerns raised by farm activists like Nelson—rampant consolidation among growers and producers, coupled with a decline in domestic production of specialty crops, as wheat, corn and soybeans occupy the lion’s share of arable acreage—isn’t to dismantle our current farm infrastructure. Instead of pretending that small-scale, labor-intensive family farms should (or could) displace larger, more efficient farms, a better approach would be to support opportunities for more specialty farmers and producers—organic, natural, grassfed, whatever—to enter the business.
By analogy, it’s wonderful that there are master furniture makers out there crafting handmade, heirloom pieces. It’s a valuable addition to the choices available in the marketplace.
But individual artisans—or even a collective—making hand-built tables, chairs and bookcases aren’t going to displace “industrial” furniture manufacturers. Instead, like organic growers or grassfed producers, they’re a supplement to, not a replacement for conventional, “corporate” production, whether we’re talking bed frames or beef steak.
That said, we—meaning all of society, not just production agriculture—benefit from a strong, thriving family farm sector. The more people engaged in raising livestock or food crops, the more strength agriculture possesses. The more specialty crops or heritage livestock being grown, the better it is for protecting farmland from development and engaging the public with how and from where their food is produced.
For those reasons, I admire and respect Nelson for the nearly three decades of his life he’s devoted to promoting family farming—especially when he’s never profited from any of it, financially or career-wise.
As a tribute, I posted the following on his 80th birthday webpage (http://birthday.willienelson.com/):
“Happy Birthday, Willie. I truly admire your commitment to the causes you care about and your dedication to making this world better for the farmers who feed the rest of us. Congratulations on outliving a helluva lot of your critics, and best wishes for many more years to inspire many more folks with your passion and your persistence.”
Despite his occasionally skewed politics, you gotta love a guy whose resume includes not only commercial success but humanitarian commitment, as well.
I can only dream about being within shouting distance of his accomplishments when—God willing—I hit Eight-Oh.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.